‘I need something with a deeper meaning,” says rapper L. Jinny in his song “Overdose”: “food for thought, something that will keep me eating.” He seems to have found what he was looking for. L. Jinny, a.k.a. Lyricist Jinn Matic, a.k.a. Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, left the rap business in July 2013 to join ISIS in Iraq. One month later he tweeted a photo of himself holding a severed head, winsomely captioned, “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.” According to press reports, Bary may be the murderer of American journalist James Foley.
The rise of Bary, a British citizen, to global notoriety within the ranks of the caliphate has brought attention to the large numbers of foreigners expatriating to join the Islamic State. Khalid Mahmood, member of Parliament for Perry Barr in Birmingham, claims that more than twice as many British Muslims are fighting for the Islamic State as for the Queen. In early August The Australian published a photograph of a seven-year-old boy holding a severed head at the behest of his jihadist father, Khaled Sharrouf, a Sydney resident fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. The caliphate’s conquest is regional, but its draw is global. Why?
“Western liberalism,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week, “asks men to be governed by laws made by mere men and their politicking. It demands of most men that they be mere citizens.”
To the often drab task of “mere” citizenship, Americans have done a not unimpressive job of giving a quasi-religious imprimatur. The Constitutional Convention that created the institutions of American republicanism was “an assembly of demigods,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, and Lincoln in his Lyceum Address exhorted: “Let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.” But the governmental structure the Founders ultimately established was not intended to be a vehicle for ascending to heavenly heights; it was a system of parameters designed to keep men from together sliding toward the hellish depths of which human nature is uniquely capable. It was narrow, practical, undeceived. Concludes Dougherty: “This is not for everyone.”
Thus the history of liberal democracy, observes Ross Douthat in the New York Times, is also the history of reactions to liberal democracy. Albeit with some mediation, Locke begat Lenin — and the securities of the former have often been no match for the shiny promise of the latter: gratification of the “yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.”
Islamic State–style jihadism is such a cause, and, “like communism, fascism and every other -ism that promises a new dawn,” writes Daniel Hannan at the Telegraph, “it makes no concessions, either to past tradition or to human nature. It holds out a vision of something so pure that it can, in practice, never be achieved. This purity is precisely what appeals to a certain type of youngster.” This purity comes in a host of forms, from a classless society to an Allah-approved caliphate. Its allure, however envisioned, is its ability to transcend the limitations imposed by human frailty and corruptibility.
The longing to be in contact with a transcendental reality is as old as mankind, but it has occasioned a particular form of discontent in the modern age — what Pascal in his Pensées called ennui, soul-boredom, existential restlessness:
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Whence this unfortunate fact? From the “natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable,” Pascal wrote, “that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.” Alone in a quiet room without diversions, we are confronted with our predicament:
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.
The “yearning for a transcendent cause” follows naturally the realization of the unbearable lightness of being.
Liberal democracy, primarily concerned with restraining man’s worst inclinations, offers no resolution to that predicament. Enter youngsters of a certain familiar type — per Hannan, “male, typically in their twenties or early thirties, with some education, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, lonely, unsuccessful with women, often with a history of petty crime” — and familiar existential distress is easily perverted into heavenward aspirations. This is the type who becomes a terrorist: not the especially pious or the fanatically righteous but the beset — whose psychopathologies turn them the wrong way in their very human desire to reconcile themselves to mortality and injustice (in sum, to the human condition) — and the empty, who look for transcendence in a mundane cause and find there their raison d’être. The degree of their brutality is a function of the zealousness of their pursuit.
This type of individual finds pitch-perfect expression in the recent film Calvary. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) finds himself lending what little spiritual guidance he can to a young man in his parish, Milo (Killian Scott), who is at a loss. Not blessed with “the gift of gab,” he is hopeless around women, and it has reduced him to two desperate options: commit suicide or join the army. To Father Lavelle, Milo’s options are simply opportunities “to find out what it’s like to kill someone,” and, by doing so, to become a “more authentic” human being. Milo is yearning for a transcendental cause that will substantiate his existence.
Opposite Milo is Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson), a young prisoner whose emptiness led him to murder and cannibalism. Describing his crimes to Father Lavelle, he finally hits on the feeling: “You become God!”
That is the final delusion of those who think jihadism is the way to commune with transcendental reality. Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, Khaled Sharrouf, and the rest are ultimately little interested in finding God. They believe they become God.
“No,” Father Lavelle replies simply. “You don’t.”
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.